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The day after November 10, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in Politics, societal commentary, teaching.
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I went to bed Tuesday knowing that Trump was president.  I didn’t wake up to a shock, and even when I went to bed, I wasn’t that shocked.  I guess having lived through 8 years of George W Bush made me rather cynical about the way our country deals with problems and adversity.  (That is, usually in the least constructive manner possible.)  Unlike a lot of people, I’m not raging and upset at the outcome: I’m just disappointed and know the next four years are going to be tough.

I pondered how to handle it with my class, though, and decided the best solution was to not bring it up.  As I’ve mentioned before, this is one of my most diverse classes ever.  About 1/3 of them are international students (whom I suspect believe Americans are nuts), 1/4 Latino (whom I suspect are stressed about the election), a couple of black students (who keep their thoughts to themselves), and the last third are from the midwest (and I suspect there’s a few Trump supporters in there).  I figured it had no place in engineering and I didn’t want a fight to ensue on top of that.

After class, a student walked into my office, quite upset, and closed the door.  Then he asked if I’d voted for Trump.  I’ve had encounters with angry students before, so I, to be perfectly honest, was rather scared in that moment.  I simply said, “No, I didn’t.”

At that point, he sunk into a chair and started venting.  This student was very upset because of dealing with some other students who were Trump supporters.  I think he just wanted to be around someone who would understand where he was coming from and as I’m female, he felt there would be a good chance I would agree and possibly validate the frustration and anger he was dealing with.  He did calm down and seemed to be in better spirits when he left.

This has made me ponder if “keep quiet” was the right thing to do, however.  If I could go back, I would probably have said the following:

Some of you are probably pleased with the election.  Others of you probably are not.  Regardless of which side you’re on, I’d appreciate it if you gave everyone some space to deal with their thoughts on this.  It’s important to remember that we all have to live with each other after this, and there’s no reason to be gloating or angry because someone made a different decision than you did.

Not sure if it would help or hurt, but maybe acknowledging how everyone was feeling (and has a right to feel) would’ve helped remind the students how we are supposed to behave as mature adults.  That’s part of what they’re supposed to be learning at college, too.

Why should I vote for Bernie? February 5, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in Politics.
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I don’t too often veer into overtly political topics, but I keep getting this question and this seems as good as any place to discuss my views openly.  (If you’re a republican or non-American and couldn’t figure it out from the title, this post will most likely not be of interest to you.)  I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter (having been a fan of his since his early days in congress) and I’ve been asked why I would vote for him rather than Clinton.

Don’t you want the US to finally have a female president?

Yes, I do.  But in this case, principles are a bit more important than a uterus.

Now that we have that out of the way, I want to make one thing expressly clear:  I think both of them are immensely qualified. They both vote similarly 90% of the time.  I don’t think either of them would be a bad president, but that’s not the issue in securing the nomination.  The question is, in my mind, which one would be a better president?

In my mind, the biggest difference is their definitions of success.  Bernie wants to be a public servant, and Clinton wants to be elected.  I’m not saying it’s bad to want to be elected, but I don’t think that should be the primary driver for a public servant. Bernie is extremely constant in his views and that hasn’t changed over the tenure of his time in congress unless his constituents have requested something to change.  Clinton has made a lot of very good career moves, but I really think they’ve been a lot more about securing her position than about the people she serves.

For instance, it has always bothered me that she went to New York to become a senator rather than back to Arkansas.  It was no doubt a smart move, but it wasn’t a very principled one.

Another example is the Trans Pacific Partnership (which I am very disappointed that Obama has signed).  This was something that Clinton had been pushing for when she was in congress.  Bernie has been against it since day one.  However, with it becoming clear that Bernie was going to be her main competitor (and to some extent, O’Malley), she waffled for a while and then finally came out against it.  It isn’t just a shift: it’s a complete 180 from her previous position.  It’s become clear that Clinton has been making a swing to the left to get primary voters.  Guess what she’ll do for the general election to pick up undecideds from the republican voters: shift to the right.

I would like to know what I’m voting for, for a change.  And I suspect that Bernie isn’t going to change his views just to pick up voters.  He doesn’t need to because it’s pretty clear he has most voters’ interests as his primary concern, unlike most politicians who are encumbered by the lobbyists.

A pretty common critique is that Bernie is unrealistic and because he is so principled, he won’t be able to get anything done while Clinton is claiming that she’s “a progressive that gets things done.”  I can’t vouch for the Clinton claim (though I don’t personally agree with it), but I can say that the criticism of Bernie is completely uncalled for.  All you have to do is look at the fact that he’s a democratic candidate.  If he was so principled as to not accomplish anything, he would’ve run as an independent and you probably wouldn’t have any idea who he was unless you belong to that particular group of fringe voters and politicos.  His existence as a democratic candidate upends that argument.

The final consideration is what you’re hoping to get out of a democratic nominee should s/he become president.  The political winds, in congress at least, are blowing to the right.  Obama certainly hasn’t accomplished what he wanted.  I don’t suspect that would change for either Bernie or Clinton.  In fact, I actually think Clinton will be at a disadvantage relative to Bernie on this front.  Clinton is…well…a Clinton.  All of the vitriol that the right had for Bill Clinton is going to be aimed front and center at his wife.  Bernie has an advantage in that he has learned over a few decades how to deal with congress.  He also has a strong set of principles.  Conservatives typically appreciate that more than compromise, something that the left tends to underestimate.

By having a strong set of principles that, to some extent, appeal to the right (particularly veterans) as well as an ability to work with congress, Bernie is set up to be able to get at least some legislation through.  Clinton could do the same but her approach will be to move to the right in order to do so.  This means that the things we could see coming from a Clinton administration will be very much in line with what has been coming from the Obama administration.  While that’s better than what would happen should a republican presidency take place, I think Bernie could actually shift the center just a bit farther away from corporate interests.

Measure for measure, number 5 October 28, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in societal commentary.
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I generally am not afraid to discuss politics in person, but I don’t do it often here.  I will discuss topics that can be politicized but seldom delve directly into politics, particularly of the local variety.  The reason is that I don’t want to irritate my neighbors.  However, in viewing my site stats, I’ve realized that only about a third of my readership hails from North Dakota.  The other two thirds are divided equally between Minnesota and New Zealand.  (When you only have three readers, it’s easy to divide up your blog readership quanta that way.)  Anyway, I’m pretty sure that my ND reader is a friend and has already heard this before.

The reason I feel compelled to write on this is the nonsense objections I’ve been seeing to Measure 5.  For those not familiar with it, it’s designed to take 5% of oil taxes to the state and set it aside for environmental projects.  Some of the money would go into a trust, but the rest of the money would be spent by the state Industrial Commission (yeah, the same folks who approve permits for oil wells) based on the recommendation of a panel of appointed citizens.

For the sake of disclosure, I am not a member of any of the groups that are backing the bill.  I am a member of one group opposed to the bill (the North Dakota Corn Growers Association).

I received an email from NDCGA describing the opposition arguments.  It said:

  1. Measure 5 mandates government spending – State government would be forced to spend $4.8 billion on conservation over the next 25 years, even if schools, roads, veterans programs, and other priorities need the money more.
  2. Measure 5 diverts funding for special interest priorities – Conservation spending will be put ahead of education, senior services, public safety, tax relief, and more. Do we want that?
  3. Measure 5 is driven by out-of-state interest groups – A full 96 percent of Measure 5’s funding comes from out-of-state interest groups that don’t know or care about what’s best for our state.
  4. Measure 5 offers no accountable spending plan – Measure 5 empowers an unelected, unaccountable advisory board to decide how North Dakota tax money is spent. Their definition of a “conservation program” could be using tax dollars to buy up land so hunters and farmers can’t use it.

Points 1 and 2 are worded for maximum effect, but they say similar things.  The biggest thing is that OMG, the government is going to spend money and not only is it going to spend money, it’s spending it on the wrong things!

First, I never have and still don’t understand why people think that government spending is a bad thing.  As long as the government is spending money to develop the resources to benefit the population it governs, then it’s simply doing it’s job.  No one ever told me, “Don’t spend money.”  They always told me to spend it wisely.  Therefore, I see this argument as just plain silly.  If you have a house, you must spend money to pay for repairs.  However, it’s also a good idea to work on keeping it updated because, as most people know, that money usually increases the market value of your home (at least in a good economy).  In my opinion, spending money on environmental development is the same thing: making a good investment in our state, one that will pay off, financially in terms of tourism and hunting and improved land for farming, later on.  Given the environmental mess in the western part of the state, I think that it is time to do something, and quickly.

The argument about prioritizing spending on the environment over other things is a red herring because the problem is not with the measure but our legislature.  It’s pretty obvious that the legislature doesn’t value environmental development over other things…it just doesn’t seem to value much development at all.  When all this oil money started rolling in, why didn’t the legislature start putting money into infrastructure that was badly needed in the western part of the state?  What happened to the special session they were going to call to deal with it?  There is the possibility they will do that in the next biennium, but it’s almost guaranteed that they won’t do anything for the environment, even if they do manage to find it within themselves to do something about the infrastructure mess out west.

The third point: it’s being driven by out of state interests!  Except that all of the money being spent will be under the advisement of the Industrial Commission.  Those out of state folks are asking us to give money to OUR OWN governing bodies and, with input from some of OUR OWN citizens, spend that money on our own state.  Yep, that’s what those evil folks out of state are pushing for.  Hello?!  This is the industrial commission we’re talking about.  Do you really think that the three people on the commission really are die-hard tree-huggers who want to save owls and pheasants above all else?  (Do you even know who is on the industrial commission?!)  If anything, I think it’s brilliant because you know they’re going to put the money in places that will hopefully both benefit the farmers and hunters and tourism in the state…while also helping the environment.  The industrial commission, if anything, has been far more likely to kowtow to out-of-state oil companies than the likes of the nature conservancy.  (ETA: if they’re so concerned about out-of-state interests, then the fact that over twice as much funding has come from Big Oil interests should be a big deal…but it’s not mentioned at all.)

The last point is a lot of scare-mongering.  Again, we’re talking about the industrial commission making the decision on how it’s spent.  Are they really going to take land out of production?  I think not.  Further, it is simply wrong because the state has laws to prevent this that were put in place to prevent large-scale corporate farming.  We’re protected on that front.  If anything, I’ve heard things about the possibility of a state-run CRP-style program, something that some of my own family members really liked.  There are also a lot of other possibilities on this front.  For one thing, maybe some of this money may go into funding research on more environmentally-friendly methods of farming.  I think the argument against this is that because they don’t know how the money is spent, it’s going to be spent to take our land away.  In reality, the way the money is spent is unrestricted and potentially allows for a lot of creative, synergystic activities between conservationists, farmers, and sportsmen.  That is really the point, isn’t it?  If we mandate spending now, how do we know that it will be appropriated to the right places ten years from now?

None of these arguments makes a lot of sense to me, and the opposition arguments strike me simply as a knee-jerk reaction to anything with the label “environmental.”  That’s sad because knee-jerk reactions don’t enable us to take care of business properly, and our state is desperately in need of some investment into its future.

The Brain Drain March 22, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, Fargo, grad school, research, science, societal commentary.
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Yesterday, I was getting into my car when I noticed something on my windshield.


My neighbor had seen the article about me in yesterday’s paper and left me a message about it.  In fact, it hit three of major newspapers in the state. (If you care to read it, one copy is located here.)

When I was asked by the public relations person at NDSU if she could feature my research as part of an effort to promote the supercomputing facilities on campus, I was certainly glad to do so.  First, from a simply pragmatic point of view, it’s not a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you.  (Although, to be honest, they have a lot of other projects they could’ve featured.)  Second, and more important in my mind, is that this type of thing counters some of the negative attitude about the state universities in the western part of the state.

People from out of state (probably the 4 of my 5 readers) are probably not aware that there is a bit of a divide in state politics, and it can be roughly framed by drawing a vertical line down the center of the state.  The eastern part of the state has the major universities and sees the benefits of having them.  The western part of the state thinks the universities are sucking all of their hard-earned money, and worse yet – children, away from them.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s all I heard about was the ‘brain drain’ that the state was suffering: all of those bright, hard-working, born-in-North-Dakota kids were being educated at a low cost and then leaving the state.  The people in the western part of the state seemed to think we just ought not to spend so much money educating them.  I don’t think they understood that the likely result of that would not be to prevent brain drain but to accelerate it as those students would end up leaving for colleges out of state.  On the other hand, the eastern part of the state was asking for more and more money to fund already seriously underfunded universities which were teaching a lot more kids than they could realistically accommodate.  And we won’t even talk about research.  The universities are supposed to be there to serve the students from the state…what does research have to do with anything?

I was one of those kids that left straight out to go to college, and I really had no intention of returning.  I wanted to do research, and I knew that coming out of high school.  I knew that because I’d gotten involved in research through a state-sponsored program at NDSU as a high school student, and I also knew that I likely couldn’t do what I wanted here.  And why should I, when I could go someplace better?

If you fast forward to about 2000 (when I came back to return to school), there were some significant changes happening.  Great Plains software was bought out by Microsoft, making it the second largest Microsoft campus in the world.  There were companies in town doing engineering.  There was a way to stay in North Dakota with a technical degree.  And about that same time, NDSU started to make some aggressive moves to increase the size and reputation of its campus.

In the past ten years (even before the oil boom in the western part of the state), this significantly slowed the population loss the state was suffering.  However, the western part of the state was still shrinking, and this was probably aggravating the divide.  The eastern part of the state is right, though, IMO.  If you want to keep people from leaving, you need to find a way to create jobs, and not just any jobs: they have to be jobs that bright, educated people will want to do.  Universities are very often centers of creativity and entrepreneurship, and so bringing in more money to the universities will likely do a lot to create jobs and businesses.  Bright, educated people will start businesses to hire those that may not necessarily have the advanced degrees but are still hard workers.  The state is finally starting to see that, and they’re also using some of the money from the oil and gas taxes to create incentives for businesses to operate here.

Going back to the article, I was excited to do this as I see this as a way to communicate to the skeptics that the universities are good for the state.  Here is a project that I would likely have to do somewhere else if it weren’t for the fact that we have the facilities here and they are easily accessible.  Part of the reason I think my research was featured is not only the coolness factor, but the fact that I’m a native of the state and one of the people who, ostensibly, you don’t want leaving for a better job elsewhere.  So yes, the universities are doing something to keep people here, even if not in the western part of the state.  (On the other hand, it sounds like they have more people there now than they really know what to do with, which is another story altogether.)

My only disappointment in all this is that my hometown paper, the Bismarck Tribune, didn’t run the story.  I can’t help but wonder if that is a result of the fact that the divide still obviously exists.

Pointless arguing February 21, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in older son, societal commentary.
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I will occasionally read conservative blogs.  I think it’s because either I’m a glutton for punishment or because I need someone to spit venom at.  Either way, I will seldom comment on them.  Instead, I’ll have my older boy pull up a chair, and we’ll discuss what we’re reading.

“You really ought to say something, tell them why they’re wrong.”

“No, it’s a waste of time.”

“Why is that a waste of time?”

“They don’t care it’s wrong, and anything I say is actually just going to reinforce their view.”

I would like to believe that people, when presented with evidence that they have a misconception, will take a serious look at it.  Unfortunately, as I was about to rethink this stance, I had something happen to reinforce that particular view.

I’ve been mutually following someone on Twitter for quite a while.  He’s a funny guy, and we’re both Star Trek fans.  In fact, he was one of the first people I started following.

I posted a link to a graphic from the New York Times detailing several measures of various country’s well-being.  He responded that the graphic said more about the NYT than the countries, and that they chose those particular countries so that the US would show up last.  I suggested he ask a question at the column about how the countries were chosen, but he said that would be a waste of his time.

I thought about it and wondered if there might be some truth to his statement.  However, after I looked into it (and discovered the answer was on the top line of the graphic), it turned out that the countries chosen were the ones that the International Monetary Fund lists as having “advanced economies”.  So no, the NYT didn’t cherry pick the countries they wanted to include in the graphic specifically so that the US would show up last on those measures: the countries were chosen according to someone else’s hopefully more objective criteria.  Maybe they did practice some type of exclusivity on the criteria they chose, but I won’t get into that because, frankly, I don’t know.

I let the Twitter friend know where the list of countries came from.  He responded, “Okay.”  Then he unfollowed me.

Harsh.  We’d had a disagreement.  I don’t hate the guy.

I used to spend a lot of time arguing with people, expecting that if I showed them data explaining why their viewpoint, if not wrong, may at least be questionable.  This was always the response I would get.  Or they’d try to convince me that their experiences trump statistical studies.  Or worse yet, they’d pull out data from some place that I would consider far from objective (*ahem* Heritage Foundation *ahem*).

At some point, I realized I was just having these discussions over and over, and it really didn’t matter what I said.  I don’t mind discussing opinions that differ from my own, but I also like justification for those opinions…and the internet is too full of people who prefer the Rush Limbaugh method of “discussion”.  So frustrating.  So pointless.

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